Show & Tell: A Campaign Torch Helmet

The Henry Ford
The Henry Ford / The Henry Ford

This tin helmet, which would have been used by a marcher at a torchlight parade in the late 19th century, could transform a wearer into a living beacon when its wick was lit. The Henry Ford, which holds the helmet, dates it to around 1888.

Starting in the middle of the 19th century, political campaigners trying to drum up support used tactics borrowed from recent religious revivals to rally people to vote. The innovations of the Second Great Awakening had included tent meetings, door-to-door canvassing, and public testimonies of faith, as well as the torchlight parade, according to historians of religion Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown. Political campaigns used many of these tactics to bring together supporters, even “appropriating religious hymns for political uses or commissioning campaign songs that drew on sacred music.” In a time before broadcast advertising on radio or television, these methods brought people together in localized groups in cities and small towns, to spread the word about a candidate’s worthiness.

Lest we let the memory of torchlight parades in small towns lead us to idealize the high degree of political investment our ancestors seem to have enjoyed, historians Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin write that the level of organization and participation that would result in a rousing torchlight procession would have been more common during presidential campaigns, and less so in other years. There was “a disproportionate participation of party activists in campaign rallies and other events,” rather than local people who had been roused to political awareness by the event. And by the 1880s, when this helmet was in use, cities were more likely to have torchlight parades than were small towns, and the pageantry of the parades rather than their political content tended to be the draw for attendees.

Inventor Thomas Edison appropriated the torchlight parade to promote electric light, equipping workers with helmets with lights on top to make a statement about the safety of his incandescent bulbs. In 1882 he sent 400 such employees into a torchlight parade for presidential candidate James Blaine, wearing elaborate contraptions: helmets with lightbulbs, connected by a wire that would run down the wearer’s back, out a sleeve, and onto a central cable, which was then connected to a dynamo and a steam engine on a wagon. This tin hat looks rudimentary, but efficient, in comparison.